The mathematics still are heavily in their favor, but the Orioles failed again last night to crunch their magic number. The Detroit Tigers staged a late comeback to score a 5-4 victory at Camden Yards and the New York Yankees crept another game closer in the American League East.
The magic number remains at three, which means that the Orioles have to win just two games on their final six-game road trip to force the second-place Yankees into a win-or-else situation. The plot thickened a bit in the final home game of the regular season, but how much suspense can there he when the penalty for losing the division is a seemingly softer first-round matchup in the playoffs?
Still, the way the Orioles lost this one was particularly galling for manager Davey Johnson, who was enjoying a strong performance by starter Scott Erickson before another bullpen blowup -- and an ugly defensive lapse -- allowed the surprising Tigers to win for the third time in the four-game series, climb to .500 and solidify their hold on third place in the AL East.
"We're not doing the things we did earlier this year," Johnson said. "I don't know if it's a lack of intensity or concentration or what, but I'm going to talk to them when we get to Toronto. I'm a little disappointed in them."
Erickson gave up six hits over seven innings and appeared to be cruising to his 17th victory of the year when he turned the game over to right-hander Armando Benitez with a runner on first and no one out in the eighth inning.
Benitez had not given up a run in his previous eight appearances, but he walked the first batter he faced and gave up a run-scoring double to Bobby Higginson that became even more damaging when Jeffrey Hammonds bobbled the ball in right and then threw it into the Tigers dugout to allow another run to score.
Higginson moved to third on the play, but Benitez nearly pitched out of the no-out jam. He struck out big-swinging Tony Clark and third baseman Travis Fryman, bringing Bob Hamelin to the plate looking for his first contact of the night. Hamelin had struck out his previous three at-bats, but drove his 18th homer of the year over the center field to give rookie reliever Eddie Gaillard his first major-league victory.
"That was not pretty," Johnson said. "We shouldn't have let that get away. Defensively, it was tough letting that ball get into the dugout. I just think we've been a little bit lackadaisical. I don't know, but it's not something you turn on and off. I expect us to be a little more locked in than that."
The Tigers are the most improved team in baseball, and finishing with 81 victories or more would be a considerable accomplishment one season after setting a dubious club record with 109 losses in 1996. They took the field last night with seven victories in their previous 10 games and just one game below sea level, but fell behind early when right-hander Brian Moehler struggled with his control in the first inning.
Moehler walked Roberto Alomar with one out and surrendered )) two-out singles to Harold Baines and B. J. Surhoff to load the bases. The Orioles didn't take a meaningful swing after that, but they still pushed across two runs. Cal Ripken walked on four pitches and Hammonds worked Moehler for another RBI walk before Lenny Webster bounced into a force at third to end the inning.
Erickson worked through the first two innings without incident, but gave up a run in the third when Raul Casanova led off with a single to right and scored on a one-out double by leadoff man Brian Hunter.
Neither ball was hit particularly well. Casanova's base hit was a looper that dropped in front of Hammonds. Hunter hit a hard chopper down the first base line that skipped inside the bag and rolled toward the right-field corner.
It was all the Tigers were going to get for a while. Erickson was coming off a couple of difficult performances, but it was clear from the high percentage of groundball outs that the veteran right-hander was back in a groove, which had to come as a relief to Johnson and pitching coach Ray Miller.
In his previous two starts, Erickson had given up 14 earned runs in just 6 2/3 innings of work. He was knocked around for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings in a Sept. 12 start against the Yankees and gave up six runs on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers last Wednesday night.
"It was somewhat satisfying, considering that the last two were so bad, but the bottom line is winning the game, so just because I pitched well I can't be happy," Erickson said. "The team needed to win this game. Now, we need to come out and turn it around tomorrow."
That's going to be a tall order, with likely Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens scheduled to go against young Nerio Rodriguez in the opener of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays tonight at SkyDome.